Police Detective Sergeant Ronald Prasad removes boxes of evidence from the Sydney offices of the Health Services Union following a raid this morning. Photo: Jon Reid
The charges against former health union boss Michael Williamson are a game-changer for Tony Abbott. The Opposition Leader is now attempting to shape this development into a potent vehicle to hammer the Prime Minister.
He asserts that because Williamson is a former Labor Party office holder, the mess is therefore, somehow, all the fault of Julia Gillard. ''Plainly the Prime Minister has got to take responsibility for this.''
Abbott desperately needs a distraction from Labor's strong criticism that he is, somehow, responsible for the every utterance of Alan Jones. That's where the row surrounding the Health Services Union is the gift that keeps on giving.
Williamson is a heavy hitter in the ALP. He has been general secretary and president of his union, a member of the ACTU executive and ALP national president.
Five of the 20 charges against the union boss relate to recruiting five other people to commit criminal acts by hindering a police investigation.
Police say Williamson is alleged to have hindered the police when he and his son Chris removed a bag of documents from the union's Pitt Street headquarters when police were executing a search warrant at the premises in May this year. No charges have been laid against Craig Thomson, a national secretary of the union who became a Labor MP in 2007.
Williamson is also charged with providing false statements to the Temby inquiry, which investigated fraud and corrupt practices within the union. That investigation probed allegations that Williamson and Thomson received secret commissions from a union supplier.
Thomson says police have not spoken to him in relation to the hindering of investigations and he was not one of the five people of interest. Thomson had previously strenuously denied allegations he used a union credit card to pay for prostitutes. Perhaps someone sneaked into his hotel room and used the desk phone to summon a hooker without his knowledge. After defending Thomson for months, on the basis of the presumption of innocence, Gillard dumped him from the Labor caucus earlier this year.
She acted after Fair Work Australia found Thomson had used union credit cards to pay for lavish meals, accommodation and prostitutes, when he was national secretary of the HSU.
Thomson still votes with the government, prompting Abbott to claim that the PM relies on the independent's ''tainted'' vote. That is one of the most ludicrous propositions put recently. The Coalition relied on Mary Jo Fisher's vote when the Liberal Senator from South Australia was facing charges. Thomson does not face charges, but Abbott's political argument still carries a punch.
One reason is that the allegations swirling around Thomson have been so detailed and so persistent that many members of the public may now believe them to have substance. The other factor is Alan Jones and his ilk. Jones strongly backs the Coalition when the mood takes him, which is most of the time, and regularly cuts himself off from facts when blissful ignorance suits him better. For instance, he is quoted as saying on the carbon and mining taxes: ''We are staring into the abyss of a continually shrinking economy - out there in struggle street they understand that but the government doesn't.''
The struggle street he so lamely tries to identify with is a long way from his lifestyle, driven by a salary of $4 million a year.That salary bears a direct correlation with the diversity of high-powered advertisers he pulls to the radio station. Some companies are pulling out their sponsorship but later they will ease back, quietly, keen to have Jones endorse their products, for a price.
The reality that he chooses to ignore is that Australia's economy has been growing for 21 consecutive years and is forecast to keep growing for at least four more years. This is not disputed by the Coalition.
The Opposition Leader describes Jones's comments about the Prime Minister's father as dying of shame as wrong, unacceptable and offensive but says, ''I'm not in the business of ignoring a big audience.'' It's Abbott's right to choose to go on Jones's high-rating program whenever he likes. And why wouldn't he, when Jones is such a suck-up fan?
The day after Abbott's Budget address-in-reply, Jones introduced the Opposition Leader on his program as having delivered an ''utterly Prime Ministerial'' speech. ''He was outstanding.''
Jones's comments about Gillard's father were made at a Liberal Party function, not on his program.
That doesn't stop Labor for calling for his removal from the radio station where he continues to say the PM should be put in a chaff bag and dumped at sea. The government is trying to ride the groundswell of opprobrium against the broadcaster, and of sympathy for the PM who so recently lost her Dad.
Gillard has reacted appropriately - with dignified silence. Even before this latest remark, the PM was not going to go on Jones's program again because in her last appearance, he famously called her ''Ju-liar''. At least he said it directly to the PM. Why would the PM front up again to such disrespect and personal denigration?
Jones displays his arrogance when he flounces about and huffs that his phone call was not taken at The Lodge or Kirribilli. He is really on another planet if he thought the PM was going to show him any respect by taking the call and allowing him to apologise personally.
But Labor must decide just how intensely it will try to implicate Abbott in Jones's remarkably tacky comments. The Government should think twice about this strategy.
Ministers could easily over-reach if they insist on continuing to blame Abbott for creating the conditions that allow Jones to display such shameful behaviour.
Labor's Anthony Albanese says Abbott has created the culture of personal abuse and denigration that gave the go-ahead to shock jocks like Jones. That fails to recall Mark Latham's description of former prime minister John Howard as an ''arse licker''.
Labor's calls for Jones to be taken off air - for something he didn't do on-air - ignore the fact that he has a rusted-on audience who believe he can do no wrong. Labor is on a hiding to nothing in its calls for him to be removed. The radio station's commercial interests will override that.
Adding to this is the growing unease about Labor's plans for a media regulator. Cabinet now appears to be cooling towards the proposal for a government-funded regulator to police the print media.
The Coalition argues this proposal smacks of political payback by Labor for adverse coverage, particularly in News Ltd publications.
If the government pushes the idea of a statutory regulator, the Coalition could construe it as malevolent and cry censorship. Same with the calls for Jones to be taken off air.
When Parliament resumes on Tuesday, Abbott will let fly over Thomson but the government will reply with its own criticism over his comments linking Europe's debt crisis to Australia's economy. Net debt in Greece is expected to peak around 16 times higher than in Australia but there are no prizes for guessing which facts Jones will choose to believe and parrot to his huge audience.
Ross Peake is Political Editor.